KONG: SKULL ISLAND
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, John Oritz, Tian Jing, Toby Kebbell, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Eugene Cordero, Marc Evan Jackson
MPAA Rating: (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language)
Running Time: 1:58
Release Date: 3/10/17
Review by Mark Dujsik | March 9, 2017
More than any of the other famous movie monsters, King Kong is best known—and best portrayed—as a tragic figure. The giant ape is just that: a giant ape. He doesn't have some inherent vendetta against humanity. He has no desire for causing mass destruction. He's content to live out his life on a remote, uncharted island, where he comfortably sits at the top of the list of dominant species in his ecosystem. It's modern man that turns Kong into a monster.
That theme returns in Kong: Skull Island, in which a group of disillusioned soldiers are eager to make up for the result of the Vietnam War and a team of scientists decide that they can do whatever they want to an unknown land in the name of discovery. Kong doesn't take too kindly to the sudden, violent appearance of these people, dropping bombs and setting fire to swathes of virgin terrain. Kong wasn't a monster before this—only a giant ape, relaxing in his homeland and defending his position whenever a threat came along to challenge him. He just sees those bomb-dropping helicopters as big, metallic birds—a new menace with which to contend.
The movie, a complete reboot of the Kong mythology, understands this aspect of innocence, but it never convinces us that it cares about that quality. Kong is certainly ferocious and merciless when he needs to be here: He nabs helicopters out of the sky, stomps on and pounds those pesky humans into mush, and pummels a couple of other massive creatures. He's a mighty and intimidating figure, framed in impressive shots (such as his silhouette against the fiery red of a setting sun) and shot from low angles, because there's really no other way to see him once all the choppers are down.
This Kong is an imposing monster, to be sure, but as an innocent caught up in the dealings of the inhabitants of a world beyond his comprehension, he doesn't quite register. Maybe it's unfair to judge the movie, which dismisses the tragedy of his first screen appearance as having never happened, by any established thoughts and feelings about what the character does or is supposed to represent. Maybe it is, but pre-existing attachment to those thoughts and feelings is a tough hurdle to overcome.
Surely the filmmakers are aware of these ideas about the character. They are impossible to escape. Surely, then, the problem of this Kong isn't just some emotional or intellectual bias. It's also in how the screenplay (by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly) and director Jordan Vogt-Roberts fail to make their newly-minted Kong into an actual character. If he's to be a monster, then so be it. If he's to be a misunderstood animal, that's all the better. This version never decides.
Instead, we get a lot of time with humans who are even less-defined. The excuse is a scientific expedition to Skull Island, one of the last uncharted places on the globe in 1973. Bill Randa (John Goodman), who runs a secret government organization called Monarch, leads a team of military personnel, scientists, and miscellaneous heroes to the place, which is surrounded by a self-contained storm system.
Of the last category of characters, there are James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a renowned tracker, and Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), a self-described "anti-war photographer." The military side of the operation is led by Lt. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who has a chip on his shoulder about Vietnam, and is filled with characters who are mostly fodder for the wrath of Kong and other ancient creatures. The scientists are a geologist (Corey Hawkins) and a biologist (Tian Jing) who say a few expository lines before disappearing into the background.
The performances are serviceable—as in the actors clearly know their presence is in service of lots of visual effects and, for the most part, don't try to go beyond that. They're mostly here to pose, say a few lines, and scream, howl, and yell whenever a creature arrives. Jackson does a bit more with his slowly-going-mad character (while proving to be the only possible actor who could convincingly win a stare-down with Kong), and John C. Reilly arrives about mid-way through—as a World War II-era pilot who has been stranded on the island since that war—to show everyone how to appropriately juggle self-awareness and sincerity in a movie like this.
The real stars, of course, are Kong and the island's menagerie of monsters. Kong's second introduction (the first coming during an amusingly over-the-top prologue) is his fight against the military choppers, and it's a striking setpiece of elaborately choreographed chaos. After that, the humans fight a giant arachnid with bamboo-like legs, and Kong fight a massive squid. The ultimate baddies are two-legged lizards with frightening jaws and even scarier tongues.
In the end, all of this is too generic to make much of an impact. We definitely don't care about the humans, despite the screenplay's forced attempts to give everyone a back story. As for Kong, we really want to root for the big guy, but Kong: Skull Island doesn't give us enough reason to do so.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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